Sx͏ʷuytis Smx̣e: State transportation commission approves ‘Beartracks’ name for Higgins bridge

This rare photograph is believed to capture the crossing of the Clark Fork River near the current Higgins Avenue bridge during forced removal of the Bitterroot-Salish people in 1891.

Cue the dedication ceremony.

The Montana Transportation Commission on Thursday approved naming the Higgins Avenue bridge as Beartracks Bridge, a tribute to the Salish-Bitterroot people and a prominent Native American family.

After testimony from a wide range of advocates, including Missoula city and county officials, legislators and tribal members, the commission approved the name, ending a year of preparatory work, lobbying and hope.

(Learn how to say Sx͏ʷuytis Smx̣e in Salish)

“We successfully made our case and they renamed the bridge Beartracks Bridge,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “Now we roll into how we celebrate this and figure out a dedication ceremony and all that goes with that.”

The new $17 million bridge is scheduled for completion later this year, which also marks the 130th anniversary of the forced removal of the indigenous people that occupied the valley prior to the arrival of European settlers.

Sx͏ʷ͏uytis Smx̣e, or Grizzly Bear Tracks, was a Salish sub-chief who signed both the Hellgate Treaty and Judith River Treaty in 1855.

According to Thompson Smith, a tribal history and ethnology project coordinator for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, around 300 Salish were moved to the Flathead Reservation in October 1891.

One of the three bands of people, led by a sub-chief named Louis Vanderburg, crossed the Clark Fork River on or near the Higgins bridge.

Vanderburg’s father-in-law was known as Sx͏ʷuytis Smx̣e, or Grizzly Bear Tracks. He too was a sub-chief who signed both the Hellgate Treaty and Judith River Treaty in 1855.

“It’s not just in reference to a large mega fauna here in the Northern Rockies, but also the family name of a culturally significant family and its role in the forced relocation of the Salish-Bitterroot people in 1891,” Strohmaier said.

As the transportation commission considered the name, community leaders began looking at ways to note the history of the crossing, and that behind the Beartracks name. There’s also been talk of embossing the new bridge with bear tracks, though that may not be feasible given its construction methods.

The concrete sidewalk decks are fabricated elsewhere and brought in for installation.

“We’re thinking about some other way to emboss it on the bridge,” Strohmaier said. “We’re looking at a work around. There will be signage.”